U.S. Intellectual History Blog

You are what you hear: music & history.

A few weeks ago, I discussed how cultural ideas shape the experience of having a mental illness. This week, in what I consider a kind of second entry in a series (who knows if there will be a third, or a fourth), I’m going to look at how the same is true for another experience that can encourage us to slip into universalist thinking – music.

As everyone knows, taste in music varies. When some people hear jazz, for example, they hear a rich and arresting kaleidoscope of moods that captures their attention; other people, like me, mostly just hear pleasant background music. Yet I think most of us – and by “us” I suppose I mean Westerners or, perhaps, people in general – assume that there are certain rules in music in terms of what emotional space a musical piece places us in; you might not like Phillip Glass as much as I do, but you’re unlikely to listen to the soundtrack of The Hours and not feel at least a little bit depressed. Right?

Well, apparently not. I ran into an article the other day that reviews some recent research done by anthropologists that suggests that even when it comes to music that, to Western ears, seems to contain the most obvious and overwhelming emotional cues sounds to people never exposed to Western music like, well, something else. You don’t have to hear the music to Psycho and feel anxious; who knows, if music is only associated, in your culture, with positivity, you might somehow even experience it as positive music.

This means that the way our culture cues us to hear music – the ideas we have about emotion, sentiment, and being, in other words – turns what is, on some level, basically noise, into something not even merely specifically human but specifically social; it is, in other words, one of the best ways to locate your historical self.

As it turns out, I happened to discover pretty recently  a cat video – yes you read that right – which amusingly captures this process, if you will allow a silly analogy: in the case of the piano playing cat, the orchestra here transforms what would just sound like random notes, played without any conscious or emotional intent, into something that, well, actually sounds kind of right. Not only does it sound kind of right, but it sounds a certain kind of right; it invokes certain emotions successfully. Granted, whoever composed the music to fit the cat composition probably felt that the raw material played some determinative role in the surrounding music that needed to accompany it – but still, as an excuse to link to a cat video this will do pretty well: for our cultures, if you will, are a lot like that orchestra, providing structure and cues on how to interpret what we would otherwise not be sure what to make of.

On one level, I know I am stating the obvious. But I think sometimes it is important to sit with the obvious in order to fully appreciate how its implications start to branch out in all sorts of random and possibly profound directions. Because what we’re really facing here is how our history intersects even with what feels like the most intimate encounters with what we sometimes tend to identify as a transcendent self.

Broadly speaking, there seems to me to be two possible ways to respond to these implications. First, recognizing the historical specificity of our relationships with music can, I believe, feel fairly threatening. This threat can be experienced on the level of the personal; a different reading of a particular piece of music, even by someone with the same cultural background as you, can feel like an affront to your own sense of self. I’ll never forget the relief I saw in the face of an old friend when he asked me whether I thought Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is soothing or sad: duh, I replied, that’s one of the most deeply sad pieces of music ever! And yet, it graces the playlists of many a “Relaxing Classical” compilations, so obviously not everyone agrees.

And as I mentioned, interpretations of music can vary considerably even from within a relatively cohesive culture; perhaps that is why, as Michael Kramer reminded us at the conference last year, that it is best to consider music as something “shot through” with ideology rather than merely a mechanism or cover for its delivery; although always connected to particular historical moments and the ideas peculiar to them, not everyone is, actually, hearing the same thing.[1]

So take that general sense of alienation, when someone says a piece of music you find beautiful and uplifting sounds awful to them and puts them in agony, and blow it up to the level of an entire group of people looking at you funny – to being fundamentally unaware of your entire way of being, feeling and seeing. Consider, in other words, how much that screws with the desire most of us have to grasp that everywhere, in everything, transcendent something – how much that can make someone feel, in other words, lonely.

Yet another option seems to be on the table. For at the same moment I understand the loneliness of being alone in your music, so to speak, the same experience can also generate something much more pleasant: wonder. Because in recognizing the cultural specificity of the emotional relationship to music, we are faced with an incredibly expanded sense of possibility: who knows what we have to learn and gain from places and people not like ourselves, and who knows, moreover, what combinations might, in the future, be possible. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that simply reading something like the article that inspired this post reminds me why I became an historian in the first place: there is something about understanding difference, and recognizing the limitations of your own experience, that feels a lot similar to freedom, and very near to hope.

And oddly, this perspective can exist side by side with a deep appreciation for the particular: for the other reward of recognizing the specificity of how you feel when you listen to say, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, is that what you are really experiencing is not merely your own response, or even the response of millions of people who (roughly) share your culture at this moment, but also the emotional lives and meanings of millions of people before you – you are, in other words, recreating remnants of your history right within your mind, and living it in a way which is not distant or uprooted, but direct and intimate. I remember an artist once commenting that our faces are collages of dead people; and when I listen to a piece of music, and I feel some of what many before me have felt, and maybe fragments of what the composer him or herself felt; well, what do you know – my brain is reconstructing my heritage and pumping that ancestral experience through my bloodstream. I can hardly think of anything more likely to stop any sense of post-modern rootlessness right in its tracks.

[1] Indeed, I recently watched Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology and one of my favorite portions of the film was when he discussed how, hilariously enough, representatives of wildly different political programs have all reported that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is their favorite piece of music, and thus not surprisingly, it has made appearances as propaganda in very diverse contexts. We’ll have to put the particular argument he was pursuing by pointing this out aside for the moment, but suffice to say it seems a good example of what we’re talking about here.

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Lovely piece. There are lots of great books to which this essay speaks: I recommend, in particular, the writing of Rei Terada, Emily Thompson, and Lydia Goehr.

  2. Robin wrote: ” … not everyone is, actually, hearing the same thing …”

    Our amygdala receives all sensory input (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell) first, then packages it prior to sending it along to our conscious cognition areas of our brain.

    Our cultural amygdala determines the packaging to be done on that sensory input.

    That is why the SOTU is like music, and not.

  3. this is great (even if i’m getting to it late)–I am not well read here (like Kurt), only enthusiastic. The whole tradition of Western aesthetics asserts, doesn’t it, that music is the purest art form because it communicates with us most directly? I’ve always found that odd. But I’ve never connected it in the way you do here to the cultural relativization of emotion, but that’s indeed just what’s going on. Shot through with ideology indeed. Pure ideology!

    And in response to the last part of your essay–I’ve always found this attractive about certain approaches to hip-hop and sampling. It insists on the historical, associative, nature of culture in general. Even though, if I understand it correctly, we have now reached the point where sampling Otis Redding is not making a historico-cultural reference so much as saying, ‘we spent a huge amount of money on the rights to this!’

    • Yes!, and as we’ve seen with the recent Azalea/Banks conflict, even music that is deeply connected to particular histories can now easily be transported as a commodity form to a very different subculture that doesn’t share that historical memory at all.

      Yet the weird thing is that the spread of say, hip hop does not mean, I think, that some of that heritage doesn’t start to become a part of the heritage of larger groups of people, as well; it’s just that it is done in this weird, fragmented way where only certain messages, assumptions and experiences really get translated. Suburban white kids in Australia might actually connect on some level or be enriched by hip hop, but we can also be pretty sure that the majority of the history of that music goes right over their heads rather than hitting them in the heart.

      • well, right there you’ve got a brief for the continued relevance of cultural histories of the present.

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